How To Escape From North Korea (The ONLY 9 Ways)

Here are the only 9 ways to escape from North Korea.


A staggering 60% of North Korea’s poverty-stricken population faces a stark reality as the entire country struggles with major food insecurity issues stemming from severe economic mismanagement. But why can’t they leave? Let's explore why it’s so difficult to escape North Korea, and the only 9 escape routes available.

The History Of North Korea

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, more commonly known as the DPRK or North Korea, was founded by Kim-Il Sung back in 1948. It was after the Second World War divided the Korean peninsula and put the two countries against one another, a fight that continued into the Cold War era.


South Korea backed the US, but North Korea backed the ill fated Soviet Union. Throughout this time, the North prioritized government spending on military assets, ruling the Populus with an iron fist. They bombarded its citizens with propaganda and ideology, demanding loyalty to the Kim Dynasty, banning independent media, and isolating them from the rest of the world.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, North Korea’s economy tanked, and their allies were few and far between. Food production and imports dropped off rapidly, and when a series of floods, droughts, and failed agricultural reforms hit in 1994, famine gripped the hermit kingdom.

The government initially claimed there was no famine, then they backtracked and admitted there was, but it had only affected some 235,000 people. In reality, it’s believed some 3.5 million North Koreans starved in the 4 years that followed, more than 10% of the population.

Even then, North Korea didn’t give up their war against South Korea, continuing to funnel money into their military as the country starved. But even words like famine and starvation were banned from discussion because it implied a government failing. Those who spoke out would be silenced by the authorities; usually thrown into political prison camps. But this didn’t improve the situation.


During the COVID-19 epidemic when North Korea closed its boarders entirely, including to trade, its government failings and infrastructure issues led to 10 million North Koreans suffering from hunger! That meant a staggering 41% of the country’s entire population was undernourished between 2019 and 2021. Then why not just leave?

For a start, North Korea’s government has made it illegal for its citizens to leave the country without explicit permission from the government. This kind of control is designed to prevent its citizens from learning anything about the outside world, allowing the government to continue feeding them propaganda that North Korea is paradise, that the Kim Dynasty is supreme, and that life doesn’t get any better than this.


So, attempting to leave on an official plane, train, boat, or even in a car over the boarder without the right documentation is in a word impossible. Anyone who is permitted a special exit visa, like athletes competing in an international tournament or government officials, are issued passports which they have to hand back to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when they return.

But once they’re out, why do they return? North Koreans who do attempt to leave illegally and are caught can face severe consequences including forced labor, corporal punishment, and life imprisonment in a political prison camp.


But not just them. Testimonies from defectors reveal that up to three generations of an offender’s family can be imprisoned, punished, and even executed alongside them for their crimes, regardless of if they’re successful or not. That could be their parents, children and grandparents, all paying the price for one family member daring to escape. For many citizens, the threat is enough of an incentive to return home or stay put.

For all that, though, people have managed to escape. Defectors have told their stories to the press and humanitarian agencies, so we know it is possible. But how? Given the country’s position, there are only 9 ways that defectors have managed to escape, that we currently know of.

Route 1: Korean DMZ

The first way out may seem the most obvious, and that’s to cross over the border from North to South Korea. While the two countries are still technically at war, South Korea is pushing towards plans of reunification in the future.

Part of that plan includes a special law allowing the protection of defectors from the North, unconditionally providing them with aid, language lessons, and the resources they need to resettle. There’s just one problem, a 160-mile-long problem: the Demilitarized Zone, aka the DMZ.

It is the most heavily fortified and dangerous border in the world: marked by electric fences, lookout posts, artillery, tanks, and some 2 million active and armed troops on each side at any given time. As the two countries are still technically at war, and neither is willing to risk and invasion from the other until a peace treaty is signed, the 2.5-mile-wide buffer zone is constantly patrolled.


And even when the guards aren’t looking, anyone brave enough to make a mad dash across would need an incredible amount of luck to avoid the 3 million anti-personnel and anti-tank landmines buried along it. While very few try, some, like Oh Chong Song, succeed.

Back in 2017, a soldier the son of a high-ranking military official, committed a serious crime. Terrified of punishment, he made the snap decision to rush across the demilitarized zone in a car. He was chased and shot at more than 40 times before he exited the vehicle, made it over the border, and collapsed behind a low wall on the South Korean side.

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Under cover of darkness, South Korean operatives pulled him to safety and, luckily, he survived. While a soldier in a car might be able to defect this way, a civilian on foot wouldn’t stand a chance. So crossing over the border is generally a no-go. Which leads us to the next route.

Route 2: Going Under The Border

Back in the 1970s, 2 tiny tunnels (one 3ft by 4ft, and another 7 by 7 ft) were discovered leading from North Korea into South Korea under the DMZ. They’d been booby-trapped, apparently designed to allow North Korean soldiers to pass through without being detected.

However, in 1978, a defector revealed that there was a third tunnel, which came out just 27 miles from Seoul, the capital city of the South. In 1990, a fourth was discovered too. The method of their construction is almost identical, indicating they were professionally dug tunnels originating from the North Korean side with intentions to use them for subterfuge though they initially claimed it was part of a coal mine.

It’s believed that there are up to 20 more tunnels dug beneath the border, though where they are is anyone’s guess. Have defectors used them to cross over though? It’s possible, seeing how defectors know about them. The tunnels are over a mile long and run through the bedrock, occasionally made of granite, up to 240 ft below ground.


It would take a coordinated working team years to dig through that, which sounds tough, but not impossible. The known tunnels are now heavily guarded on both sides, but that’s not to say secret tunnels haven’t been discovered yet, and are being kept quiet so as not to endanger any defectors planning to use them.

Currently, no successful defector has claimed to have survived passing through those tunnels yet. So that’s going over and under the border, but what about going around? That brings us to the next route.

Route 3: The Sea

With an east and a west coast, sailing over the Yellow Sea or the Sea of Japan to South Korea should have been an easy option, but it isn't. For a start, many sections of coastline are reinforced with electric fences. And the majority of defectors are poor, they don’t have the money for an engine-powered boat, meaning paddleboats are often all that’s available.

Even so, setting out from the westernmost point of North Korea is still a 60-mile journey over the waves to the shores of South Korea. And even if you did somehow have the money to buy a boat, and the ability to row it that far, North Korea’s naval patrols are well aware of the route, and actively prowl the waters hunting for escapees.

©Google Maps

Setting sail from somewhere further north to avoid the patrols is another option, but that would mean rowing some 200 miles to safety; and without any navigational or weather equipment, the seas can be a very dangerous and unpredictable place. Several boats have been caught in strong currents and been pulled back to North Korea and China.

And China doesn't count as an escape. While the hermit kingdom doesn’t have many allies, China is one. As such, China does not recognize North Korean defectors as refugees, but as illegal economic migrants, and will return them to North Korea despite knowing the horrors they’ll face.


So, what about the east coast? The Sea of Japan is a semi-enclosed sea, like the Yellow Sea, but regularly experiences typhoons and storms that blow in from the Pacific Ocean. This makes it more unpredictable and dangerous, but on the bright side, being blown off course will send you over to Japan, a country that is sympathetic to the plight of North Korean citizens, and will facilitate travel for them to South Korea.

But getting there is a struggle, being some 500 miles from the safest launch point. That’s a long distance to survive at sea, assuming your flimsy little fishing boat stays upright. As such, only 3 defectors are recorded to have made it across the sea to Japan alive. But what about swimming around the border?

The average temperature of these seas is around 55°F, so assuming you don’t freeze to death, that the border patrols don’t catch you, and that you’re a really strong swimmer, it’s plausible. Makeshift rafts have also been used successfully in some cases, made from wood planks, old tires, and even fishing floats, showing just how desperate people are to escape the regime! If you’re not a strong swimmer, and can’t afford a boat, there’s option number 4

Route 4: The Northern Border

Unlike the DMZ, the 882-mile border with China is usually less defended and patrolled, making it easier to cross. The border itself is laid along two rivers: the Yalu, and the Tumen. The Tumen is generally shallower and slower moving, making it an easier crossing point. But most citizens don’t know how to swim, so unless the river is low and walkable, it can sweep away unprepared defectors.


What’s more, since 2003, China has been installing and developing wire fencing along the Tumen River to block major defection routes. Areas with lower banks along the Yula River were also reinforced with concrete and barbed wire fences ranging from 8 to 15 ft high.

However, since 2011 it’s been noticed that those sections are somewhat of an exception to the rule, where the rest of the river has no fences and is guarded by no one. So, providing they can make it across the water, often done by crossing it in winter when the ice freezes the rivers over, then making it out of the country is possible.

However, in 2020 during the height of the pandemic, North Korea set up buffer zones extending roughly one mile out from the northern border, effectively turning it into a second DMZ. Soldiers were given orders to unconditionally shoot anyone seen approaching from the North Korean side on sight.


But what if you were lucky and made it across? As established earlier, China will ship any defectors it discovers back to North Korea. That is why the majority of defectors use a broker: a Chinese contact who illegally arranges jobs and housing for the defectors, keeping them hidden from the Chinese government.

But it costs defectors between $500 to $1000 to arrange. Considering a yearly wage for a North Korean can be as low as $650, the amount is often a defector’s entire life savings. That means, when they reach China, they have absolutely nothing, putting them at huge risk of exploitation.

Disturbingly, The Database Center for North Korean Human Rights and the Transitional Justice Working Group indicate up to 80% of female North Korean refugees fall into the hands of people traffickers, where they’re sold off to become wives, or into a much darker industry. Men are sold into slavery, facing a life of hard labor: the exact thing they tried to escape from. Trusting the brokers is risky, but it’s often the only option available.

However, China isn’t usually the intended final destination. Most defectors still want to travel to South Korea, so many will head to Beijing where they can find the South Korean Embassy. Foreign embassies like this act as sovereign ground, meaning any defectors within it are protected by South Korean law.

If they’re unable to reach Beijing, they can try to make it to South Korean Consulates in Shenyang, Hong Kong or Shanghai, as Jong Yol Ri did back in 2016. He used the 5th route of escape from the country.

Route 5: Being Part Of The Elite

Jong Yol Ri was a top student from a high-ranking family under the North Korean regime and was granted permission to leave by the North Korean government to take part in an academic competition in Hong Kong. But he escaped the surveillance team he and the rest of his school were escorted by and sought asylum at the consulate.

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He had to stay there for more than two months while Beijing’s government processed his permission to leave, and he was eventually extradited to South Korea. But if he was part of the privileged elite, why leave? While North Korea offers a decent standard of living for those who work in the upper echelons of the government and military, it still clamps down on intellectual, religious, and political freedoms.

You may have food on your table when the rest of the country is starving, but you’re still living in constant fear that saying one wrong thing could land you in a political prison camp. As such, many well-off North Koreans have sought to defect in recent years, using their privileged ability to obtain permission to leave to head straight to the nearest embassy or consulate.

For them, it almost sounds easy! However, China’s police will often have the South Korean and other foreign embassies and consulates under close watch, ready to arrest anyone they suspect of being a defector. So, trying to escape through China is dangerous.

That means the next best option is to travel across China to a bordering country and seek asylum in an embassy there. The only problem is China’s huge, literally thousands of miles across in any given direction. How do you traverse all that without any official travel documentation or money? Which brings us to the next escape route.

Via Google Maps

Route 6: The Underground Railroad

It’s not an actual railroad, but a secret network of activists that help North Koreans navigate their way across China. They do this by reaching out to them through brokers, and then by escorting them along secret routes south.

They move them from safe house to safe house, arranging transport and communicating with locals and officials to avert any suspicion from the defector’s North Korean accents; all without a fee ever being expected. But their work doesn’t stop at the border.

Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar, South Asia’s Golden Triangle are not sympathetic to the plight of North Korea’s citizens and are also under instruction to return defectors back to North Korea. Thailand, however, is sympathetic. So, to avoid detection at checkpoints along the borders of Laos and Myanmar, the railroad helps defectors through the dense jungles of the Golden Triangle to reach Thailand.

There, defectors will hand themselves over to Thai police, and from there they’ll be deported to South Korea. In total, the journey can be as long as 3,000 miles, which is insane when you remember that the border separating the two countries is only 2.5 miles wide.


The charitable heroes working for the Underground Railroad risk their lives so that others stand a chance of living theirs. And having helped more than 700 defectors get to the South, that means the organization has become a major target for North Korea’s current leader, Kim Jong-Un, and China.

In 2001, there were barely 1,000 defector arrivals in Seoul. By 2007, with the help of the railroad, that number skyrocketed to nearly 2,500. It prompted China to crack down on them hard, with many missionaries going missing. By 2020, that number was barely 230. So while using the railroad is possible, it’s not as viable an option as it used to be. It leaves many defectors facing the next option.

Route 7: Crossing Into Mongolia

Like Thailand, Mongolia is also sympathetic to North Korean defectors and will deport them to South Korea. However, getting there is one of the most physically demanding routes imaginable thanks to the Gobi Desert.

The huge barren region of cold desert spans Northern China and Southern Mongolia, with dunes that are on average 660 ft high, and extreme temperatures reaching as low as - 4°F by night. Surviving there is not easy, especially considering that poor defectors rarely have the equipment, food supply, or warm clothing that’s essential for staying alive in those conditions.

And the trek from border to border is still some 770 miles, at least. Still, 770 miles is a lot less than 3,000. However, tightened border control from China has seen fewer and fewer defectors successfully making it over the Gobi, so the route is more dangerous than ever. While South Korea offers a lucrative resettlement scheme, it’s not the only country that offers sanctuary. And that’s the next way out.


Route 8: Looking West

Foreign embassies in China provide sovereign-ruled ground, and most Western nations like those in Europe, The UK, The US, and Canada, recognize North Koreans as refugees. In those respective embassies, they can apply for asylum. Alternatively, they can make the long trek across China into said countries, alert a border patrol agent and ask for asylum.

The only issue is that Europe, and the UK especially, don’t have a great track record of approving asylum applications. The UK, for example, rejected 30 out of 40 asylum applications made by North Korean defectors in 2013. That same year, Belgium rejected 99 out of the 126 claims it received, whereas the Netherlands and France rejected all of the 128 and 129 they received, respectively.

This huge rejection rate rests on defectors not having a reasonable fear of being persecuted in South Korea, where those governments know they’re entitled to settle. However, Canada is slightly more lenient and understanding of the discrimination often faced by North Koreans in South Korea, due to the language barriers and negative perceptions of their country. As of 2016, it’s estimated some 970 defectors now live in Canada.


And while the US has legally admitted some 150 refugees, it’s believed there are around 200 who have entered the country illegally by traveling to South America and crossing over the Mexican border.

But what about if you’re in a part of North Korea that’s heavily locked down, without the privilege of the elite, the ability to get to the Northern border, or to even make a run for it over the DMZ? Well, all is not lost. For there’s an unexpected and even more dangerous way out.

Route 9: Labor Outsourcing

It’s no secret that North Korea keeps its dissidents in political prison camps, or as they’re sometimes called “labor training facilities”. It’s believed there are around 20 active sites in the country, containing up to 250,000 people.

Officials perceived to have performed poorly in their job, people who have criticized the regime, and anyone suspected of engaging in anti-government activities can be sent there.


What’s worse, the three-generation rule applies, with entire families sent to the same camps though they themselves may not have committed a crime. Sentences are usually for full life terms, but the reality is that they only last a few years. The lack of food, clothing, and resources provided means roughly 40% of those there perish from malnutrition.

Illness, frostbite, and accidents from the hard labor they’re forced to perform raise that mortality rate even higher. Beatings and inhumane corporal punishment are common, with survivors and defectors detailing horrendous scenes and treatment that occur day after day after day.

But it doesn’t just happen in North Korea. Unbelievably, in at least 15 countries, including Algeria, Ethiopia, Malaysia, Poland, and Russia, more than 50,000 North Korean workers are being used for forced labor! This is mainly in the mining, logging, construction, and textile industries.

It injects some $2.3 billion straight into North Korea’s pocket while forcing the laborers to work up to 20 hours a day and paying them only $150 a month, which itself is often diverted back to the North Korean government. Workers are also only allowed 2 rest days per month, given insufficient food, and watched over by North Korean security details.

But as horrific as it sounds, many North Koreans see it as a golden opportunity! Not to provide for their family, but to escape. If they can slip past the watchful eyes of their guards, there’s no landmines, no barbed wire fences, and no DMZ blocking their route to freedom!


However, not just anyone gets to work here. Candidates are thoroughly vetted and selected based on their loyalty to the DPRK, their physical condition, and they must have a family with children who can be held as collateral.

Unless you can also find a way to smuggle them out of the country, your family members are basically hostages. It forces many people to choose between family and freedom, a barbaric choice, but sometimes a necessary one.

Back in 1994, several hundred North Korean loggers at a mining camp in Siberia successfully managed to overrun the gulag-style camps they were being forced to work in. The mass breakout saw 150 loggers coordinate the escape in an attempt to make it to South Korea.

Initially, North Korea denied the reports, calling them rumor and fabrication. It was only when one of the defectors contacted journalists in the far east Siberian city of Vladivostok and confirmed it to be true. He revealed the workers had had their passports stripped from them, Russians are not allowed in the camps, and that North Korean security beat and underfed them habitually.

He himself had a wife and family back in North Korea, but he got the news that his wife, whose rations had been cut, had turned to the black market, a crime for which she was discovered and punished for. She was deported to a mountain state, along with their two children.


He had no hope of ever finding her again, and with nothing left to lose, decided to escape. We don’t know whether or not he made the 5,000-mile journey to the nearest South Korean diplomatic post in Moscow, we likely never will.

That is the stark reality of attempting to escape the regime. These are the kinds of sacrifices happening on the other side of the barbed wire and propaganda that the hermit kingdom hides behind. The choice between freedom, family, and survival is impossible to balance, and more often than not, anyone who dares to leave ends up paying with their life.

If you were amazed at the North Korean escape routes, you might want to read our other articles about North Korea. Thanks for reading!

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